Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby Atinkoriko » Sat Apr 08, 2017 1:51 pm

I'd agree with emk that French is a special issue when it comes to the differences between the written literary language and the spoken language. It's quite one thing to read the long and descriptive sentences of great French literature and quite another thing to listen to informal speech with its short rapid fire sentences and endless contractions [Not to mention the fact that the passe compose, which is predominantly used in spoken French, is hardly used in literal French].


Most commonly, the 'ne's are removed = 'Je ne sais pas' becomes 'J'sais pas' /shepa/ etc

're's are removed = sentences go from 'Ce n'est pas votre problème, c'est notre problème.' = 'C'est pas vot' problème, c'est not' problème.'

And let's not even get into verlan, which is popular slang that involves the reversal of syllables

'femme' becomes 'meuf'
'cher' becomes 'reuch'
'moi' becomes 'ouam'

Then some native speakers, especially the young people that I chat with, tend to mumble and don't enunciate.

There are more examples but you get the idea.

Light speed speaking + verlan/ contractions + an occasional disregard for grammar and conventional word order+ a general lack of enunciation + tenses which are not used in literary French = a spoken language that seems like a dialect of the written one.


In essence, reading great French literature will not necessarily lead to better listening skills with regards to spoken French.
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby reineke » Sat Apr 08, 2017 2:08 pm

Atinkoriko wrote:I'd agree with emk that French is a special issue when it comes to the differences between the written literary language and the spoken language. It's quite one thing to read the long and descriptive sentences of great French literature and quite another thing to listen to informal speech with its short rapid fire sentences and endless contractions [Not to mention the fact that the passe compose, which is predominantly used in spoken French, is hardly used in literal French].


Most commonly, the 'ne's are removed = 'Je ne sais pas' becomes 'J'sais pas' /shepa/ etc

're's are removed = sentences go from 'Ce n'est pas votre problème, c'est notre problème.' = 'C'est pas vot' problème, c'est not' problème.'

And let's not even get into verlan, which is popular slang that involves the reversal of syllables

'femme' becomes 'meuf'
'cher' becomes 'reuch'
'moi' becomes 'ouam'

Then some native speakers, especially the young people that I chat with, tend to mumble and don't enunciate.

There are more examples but you get the idea.

Light speed speaking + verlan/ contractions + an occasional disregard for grammar and conventional word order+ a general lack of enunciation + tenses which are not used in literary French = a spoken language that seems like a dialect of the written one.

In essence, reading great French literature will not lead to better listening skills with regards to spoken French.


After all I've written about the importance of listening, and the dichotomy of the spoken and written conventions, I have to add that I don't agree that reading French literature will not lead to better listening skills (and that includes spoken French). This view is about as wrong as expecting the written literary French to be a cure-all for all language issues. Written language and pronunciation training can provide a strong base for other skills. The learner will still have to perform a fair amount of listening. I prefer that my new language be rooted and grounded in the spoken word.
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby tmgbeu » Sat Apr 08, 2017 5:17 pm

Atinkoriko wrote:In essence, reading great French literature will not necessarily lead to better listening skills with regards to spoken French.

I'm not convinced French is a special exception here. I could easily see this being the case in English, too, and I'm sure it's feasible in other languages.

If we're talking about 'great literature', we're often talking specifically about works that follow some kind of literary tradition within their culture of origin. Until the past 50-100 years, the literary traditions of eg English and French were games with their own rules, and often highly distinct from everyday language. We can see this in the fact that 'realistic' speech-based writing was seen as rather revolutionary and/or controversial (and still is - 'Trainspotting', for example, still causes comment with its writing style decades after release).

I think we take for granted how 'popularised' our literature has become in the past century, and how much closer it has moved towards the vernacular. I know less about other languages, but we have 'bokmal', 'standard Arabic', and so on. Classical Japanese and Chinese often require a great deal of study for even native speakers to understand and write.

So 'great literature' in, say, English, includes loads of works pre and post 1900 that work exclusively in the literary register, perhaps with occasional (often stereotyped and even patronising) attempts to capture the vernacular. While this language clearly informs vernacular language, the divide between 'old greats' and on-the-street language will be quite distinct.

That is, I don't see that Austen or Dickens, or even Woolf or Steinbeck, would prepare an L2 learner of English for a chat in a bar in Manchester, or a visit to Camden Market.

It's a matter of registers, really, isn't it? That, and exposure. There's a solid argument here that more content per hour is a good thing, but I don't think this argument is well-served by 'great literature' (unless you really love great literature!) Outside of realists like Zadie Smith, you're probably going to get a much better feel for colloquial US English by reading the Sookie Stackhouse novels and other 'pulp/pop lit' than you are by reading Of Mice and Men.

In fact, if 'words per minute' is in itself a good thing, then 'trashy literature' would probably serve our goals here better. Stuff that's not especially 'artistic' or 'intellectual' (I'm trying to make a distinction here without placing any kind of value judgement) is usually a much easier, faster read, and, much closer to the common vernacular, and often a lot closer to the cultural milieu.

This breaks into the old distinction of 'what I feel like I should learn' and 'what I should learn' - we get better at what we practice. If we want to get better at understanding intellectual and literary writing, then we should read that. If we want to understand avant garde cinema, we should watch that. If, however, we want to use video and texts to build a broad base of general language as used by a representative section of a given society/set of language users, then we should try to read and watch and listen to them *using that language* - a 15-minute video from a random Youtuber yammering in colloquialisms about who-knows-what gives me much better listening practice in lived French than 90 minutes of Truffaut, even though I still feel like Truffaut is the 'proper stuff' that I 'should' be watching. I still stick to the 'should' of 'proper' French literature (partly because I love to read it!), but I wonder if I'd do better to dive into pop lit, blogs, and so on.
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby Atinkoriko » Sat Apr 08, 2017 7:04 pm

I'm sorry but I fail to see how I'll get better at recognising the use of peculiar tenses/idioms/slang/grammatical structures etc of informal French if I hardly encounter them at all in the 'great literature' I read.
I'd need to seek out resources that particularly feature informal French and that means less time reading Madame Bovary and more time watching tv shows.
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby tomgosse » Sat Apr 08, 2017 9:28 pm

Atinkoriko wrote:I'd agree with emk that French is a special issue when it comes to the differences between the written literary language and the spoken language. It's quite one thing to read the long and descriptive sentences of great French literature and quite another thing to listen to informal speech with its short rapid fire sentences and endless contractions [Not to mention the fact that the passe compose, which is predominantly used in spoken French, is hardly used in literal French].


Most commonly, the 'ne's are removed = 'Je ne sais pas' becomes 'J'sais pas' /shepa/ etc

're's are removed = sentences go from 'Ce n'est pas votre problème, c'est notre problème.' = 'C'est pas vot' problème, c'est not' problème.'

One thing that comes to mind for me, and may be more about my listening skills than someone's speaking, is the dropping of the end of words that end in -ble. Such as impossible becoming impossib' (ε̃pɔsib).
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby reineke » Sat Apr 08, 2017 11:31 pm

When not trying to reform French journalism, the OP seems to be doing well in French. Keep in mind that at the beginning of this thread he was talking about "trying to make it through Le Petit Prince with an audiobook". Maybe issemiyaki can share his thoughts on this subject.

issemiyaki wrote:
The reason I was so frustrated is because I tested into a C1-level class, IN PARIS. And to come across that article in Le Monde and not be able to understand what was going on made me feel like I was going backwards, and not forwards.

But as my tutor pointed out, I'm missing the big picture. I was NOT reading for meaning. (Big mistake!)

The big takeaway is that if I read more for meaning, I will get a better picture of the words I really need to learn, instead of being lead astray by every little word that is not all that important at the moment.
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby mcthulhu » Mon Apr 10, 2017 3:22 am

A former colleague once observed very concisely that "it's hard to hear words that you don't know." I think she was talking about the need to do a lot of reading of Russian, as a foundation, but I'm pretty sure her advice is applicable to other languages as well.

From my own experience - I once signed up for a language class focusing on listening skills and transcription, after having worked almost exclusively with the written language. I remember being somewhat apprehensive, but I surprised both myself and the teacher by having a fairly easy time with it. We concluded that it must be a side effect of my previous exposure to the language and very large passive vocabulary, considering that I had spent over 20 years at that point reading and translating vast amounts of material in it, and understood it well enough that I rarely needed a dictionary anymore. Granted, that class involved news broadcasts and TV interviews, and not rapid-fire street dialogue, so the language was reasonably formal and standard; but my reading skills seemed to give me a huge head start in listening.

I've also noticed the same side effect with a few other languages, having passed listening comprehension tests that I had no right to pass, since I hadn't spent much or any time listening - just reading and translating. If you do enough of that, however, your passive vocabulary will grow, but you'll also develop a feel for how things are expressed in the language and what words are likely to come next in a given context, and that seems to transfer over to listening skills to some extent.

Obviously I'm a believer in massive input in language learning. It doesn't have to be great literature, as long as you keep reading. I have Dostoevsky and Tolstoy etc. on the shelves but my favorite Russian author these days is actually Darya Dontsova, a very prolific writer of chick-lit comic murder mysteries. Not great literature, but great fun, and that's what counts.

I still remember a young language student who dismissively commented that he never read books. I felt very sorry for him, but I guess you can avoid books if you really want to. I don't know how he turned out, though.
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby s_allard » Tue Apr 11, 2017 10:33 am

While I certainly can't be against reading lots of great literature, I really wonder what that has to do with better listening skills. As has been pointed out by others, the written language and the spoken language are two different genres. It seems to me pretty self-evident that if you want to improve listening skills, you should practice doing just that.

For French, emk recommends television series. This is an excellent suggestion. There is also an incredible amount of stuff in Youtube and on the internet. What I think is really useful is careful linguistic study of the spoken word with a transcript in hand and repeated listening. I believe that a 30-minute segment of a television series in French would probably contain nearly all the French grammar you are likely to hear you are likely to hear in the entire series. This means that as you go through the series you will be repeatedly hearing the same grammar in different contexts. This is exactly how one improves listening skills.
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby blaurebell » Tue Apr 11, 2017 12:44 pm

s_allard wrote:It seems to me pretty self-evident that if you want to improve listening skills, you should practice doing just that.


I agree, up to a point. A lot of listening with series and movies is absolutely essential for listening comprehension. However, at some point the problem is that learning new vocabulary might not be that straight forward anymore, especially low frequency words. I really struggle to pick up words from spoken language - doesn't seem to work at all for me - and I feel that I get to a point where the main hurdle with listening comprehension is unknown vocabulary. With a large passive vocabulary I usually only need a fraction of my vocabulary when watching series or movies, because spoken language is rather impoverished in comparison. However, every now and then a low frequency word pops up and those just pass by for me without making an impression, whereas with reading I have a better chance of remembering them later. With Spanish I've watched like 600h of series and movies, but I still have gaps in my vocabulary and it doesn't seem to be improving from more listening. I think most of my listening was useless from a vocabulary stand-point and only helped with recognising already known words when pronounced with different accents.

For comparison: I've only read like 4500 pages extensively with Spanish, so my vocabulary really isn't that big or precise. With French I've read 6800 pages, and 5000 pages of those were intensive reading, so my passive French vocabulary is way more precise and substantially bigger than my Spanish vocabulary. There were about 600h of Spanish series, 200h of which were native series. In comparison I only have about 260h of audio so far with French, 240h of which were dubbed series. With dubbed series there is virtually no difference between French and Spanish now, about 97-99% comprehension depending on the amount of low frequency vocabulary. With Spanish I have the same level of understanding with native series - Iberian, Argentinian and maybe a tad less precision with Mexican Spanish. Most of the dubs were Mexican dubs, but there was next to no slang. Not much vocabulary needed for any of this, since my smaller and imprecise Spanish vocabulary is actually perfectly sufficient for it. With French I'm not yet used to all the slang and bad enunciation in native series and movies, so I'm maybe around 90-95%, but I expect I will only need a super challenge worth to get to the same level of understanding as with Spanish series and movies. So, the bigger vocabulary isn't really making that much of a difference with native TV and cinema judging from dubbed series. I would probably have to read an awful lot more to catch all the low frequency words that might crop up.

Here comes the part where the bigger vocabulary from reading makes a huge difference though: With radio documentaries, audiobooks and university lectures I understand an awful lot more with French because of the bigger passive vocabulary. I pretty much understand 97-99% of those depending on the topic. I was really surprised by that because of my experiences with Spanish. Despite those 600h of listening in Spanish I actually still struggle with certain documentaries and can't really listen to audiobooks at all because I feel that I miss too much of them, maybe 85-97% on documentaries depending on the topic, around 70-80% comprehension with audiobooks and with university lectures maybe 90-95%. I get to 99-100% if the topic is in my own specialisation, but even in roughly the same field I start to swim a little. With French almost any topic I've tried seems just fine and perfectly comfortable and enjoyable to understand.

Basically, if you need street level listening comprehension, reading isn't really that essential. For more educated language usage, documentaries, lectures or audiobooks just listening might be a stretch, especially for audiobooks. It's probably possible to improve this with just listening too, but I personally find it really annoying to listen to stuff where I only get 70-85%. Also, since I have trouble picking up vocabulary from spoken language it would probably be more inefficient to try to plug these holes with more listening, than to go ahead and do more intensive reading.
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Re: Great Literature = Better Listening Skills?

Postby s_allard » Tue Apr 11, 2017 1:25 pm

blaurebell wrote:...
Basically, if you need street level listening comprehension, reading isn't really that essential. For more educated language usage, documentaries, lectures or audiobooks just listening might be a stretch, especially for audiobooks. It's probably possible to improve this with just listening too, but I personally find it really annoying to listen to stuff where I only get 70-85%. Also, since I have trouble picking up vocabulary from spoken language it would probably be more inefficient to try to plug these holes with more listening, than to go ahead and do more intensive reading.


I agree with this excellent post. My intention was certainly not to oppose listening and reading.I am not suggesting that one should only do listening. Basically, you have to do both. However, the OP was talking particularly about great literature as an aid to improved listening. For example, will reading Don Quijote will help your oral comprehension of Spanish? Well, it probably will, to some extent. And you'll get all kinds of exotic vocabulary which might come in handy. But why make life difficult for yourself and not simply listen to and study an hour of contemporary television in Spanish? And of course read a newspaper or a magazine to add to your vocabulary and grammar of the more formal language.

Literary language is precisely that. Literary. Authors will read from their books but they don't really speak that way. We read for the pleasure of reading. If you are interested in learning the language to be able to speak it, then you need lots of listening from different sources and certainly as much reading as possible if available. This is the essence of the multi-pronged approach.
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